"If you're backwards compatible, you're really backwards," former Xbox chief Don Mattrick — now running things at Zynga — (in)famously said following the Xbox One’s troubled reveal in May, referring to the new console's inability to play games from the Xbox and Xbox 360. In a meeting in New York this week, Microsoft's Albert Penello didn't call the pursuit backwards, but he did concede that experiments with streaming solutions had proven too "problematic" to be rolled out to consumers.
In the months following Mattrick's statement, Microsoft has made great efforts to distance itself from that, and many other, errors in messaging. In September, Penello, senior director of product management and planning at Xbox, said that it may be possible for the Xbox One to support earlier Xbox titles using the company's much-vaunted cloud server technology. "It could be more complicated things like rendering full games like a Gaikai and delivering it to the box," Penello told GameSpot, referring to Sony's still-unproven solution for prior-generation compatibility on PlayStation 4. "We just have to figure out how, over time, how much does that cost to deliver, how good is the experience."
Just a few weeks later, Halo 4 — presumably the last Halo game to be made for Xbox 360 — was seen running on a Windows PC and, more notably, a Windows Phone during a Microsoft company meeting. The demo was billed as a prototype and a spokesperson for the company said, "The Microsoft Company Meeting is a great place to demonstrate many exciting possibilities, but we don't have any specific plans to share at this time."
"In the world of things I wish they had not shown at the Company Meeting because I knew I'd be asked about it later, put that at the top of my list," Penello told Polygon earlier this week at an Xbox One demo in New York. "That is a good example, in certain circumstances [the cloud streaming] worked really awesome."
"It's really cool and really problematic"
However, the problem, Penello explained, was that cloud streaming was simply too failure-prone to provide a realistic solution for most consumers.
"It's really cool and really problematic, all at the same time, insofar as it's really super cool if you happen to have the world's most awesome internet connection. It works way better than you'd expect it to," Penello said. "So managing quality of service, the tolerance people will have for it being crappy. Can you imagine, in this day and age, with the bad information around, and we can't control the quality of that experience and make sure it's good, or have to tell people they can't do it?"
Even without any intention of bringing the streaming compatibility option to the market, its mere existence at the Microsoft meeting four months after Mattrick's remarks show that not everyone at Xbox thinks backwards compatibility is "backwards" thinking. For Penello, the Halo 4 prototype showed a possible way forward, in some indeterminate future.
"It was a grand experiment, I know we did a lot of work behind it, and we said this is one of the things where the network just has to get better before we can do it," he said. "When that happens, you're going to have a really interesting conversation around that, can I actually run Xbox One games that way as well."
As for Sony's plans to use its Gaikai service to stream older PlayStation titles to the PS4, Penello said, "I'll be really interested to see how our friends in the Bay Area [at PlayStation] deal with this problem. But I can tell you, it's totally possible. We like it, we're fans of the cloud. We're not shy about that."